In a New York Times op-ed, "Why Millennials Should Lead the Next Labor Movement," Daily Show writer Kashana Cauley makes a case for a union renaissance led by young people working today.
"As just one example, back in my native state of Wisconsin, after Gov. Scott Walker passed an anti-collective-bargaining law that sharply curtailed unions’ right to fight on behalf of their workers, he was able to pass another law a few months later that eliminated Wisconsin factory and retail workers’ right to weekends off," Cauley writes. "At a time when the government wants to disembowel public and private health care and when wages are on the decline, our best recourse to these threats is to join existing unions or unionize ourselves."
She recalls the benefits that her father received from his job on a Wisconsin car plant assembly line — "work that regularly sent him to the hospital for surgeries to drain extra fluid from his knees" — and says that jobs like those may seem like a vestige of the past, imaginable only through a sepia-toned Instagram filter. However, she argues, many Americans still put their lives and wellbeing into their jobs now; they just lack the support and backing that unions often provided. Currently, only 10% of Americans aged 25-34 belong to unions.
"We millennials, many of whom entered the work force during the last recession, have borne the brunt of the country’s recent decline in employment quality, with lower wages, diminishing benefits and the presence of noncompete clauses that hurt even entry-level employees from finding subsequent jobs," Cauley writes. "We show higher support for unions than previous generations, and with good reason: Unionized employees typically enjoy better benefits and have made about 27 percent more than their non-unionized counterparts for roughly the last 15 years."
Those results are even more impressive along gender lines. An April 2017 report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) indicates that women with unionized jobs are less impacted by the gender wage gap than those who don't.
"Working women in unions are paid 94 cents, on average, for every dollar paid to unionized working men, compared to 78 cents on the dollar for non-union women as a share of non-union men’s dollar,” wrote Elise Gould and Celine McNicholas, the authors of the study. "Furthermore, hourly wages for women represented by unions are 23 percent higher than for nonunionized women."
The results aren't a product of mysterious union magic. As Gould and McNicholas explain, the work that unions do to establish pay transparency, correct salary discrepancies, establish clearer terms for internal processes such as raises and promotions, and "include grievance procedures for workers who have been discriminated against," helps workers circumnavigate these issues. Workplace standardization like this can benefit women in particular, who are more likely to encounter discrimination (unconscious or otherwise) along these lines.
These gains are even more important from women of color. The Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR)'s recent report, The Status of Black Women in the United States, showed that the wider gaps black women face can be remedied through union representation as well. The report found that black women in unions earn an average of 32.2 percent more per week than those in non-union jobs.
There are some drawbacks to union membership of course. A Bankrate.com article on the pros and cons of union membership notes that membership dues "can range from $200 to several hundred dollars per year, partially offsetting higher wages." Additionally, collective bargaining truly requires falling in line with the consensus, whether you immediately benefit or not. That might involve being passed over for promotions based on seniority or becoming alienated from supervisors who distrust unionized workers.
However, Hoyt Wheeler, a labor arbitrator and professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina, told Bankrate.com that "on balance, I think workers are better off with a union than without one, by far." In other words, a rising tide lifts all boats, as the saying goes. And with more millennials in the workforce boat than ever, it may be up to them to make waves.